BANGKOK, July 19 – Back from Buri Ram province in the northeast, we now face the challenge of distilling the stories we’ve heard and businesses we’ve seen into a few key differentiating factors. Condensing two years of Stanford Graduate School of Business into 14 lessons was enough of a challenge over the past six months. (For background on our project, see the About and Executive Summary links in the sidebar to the left.) We now have to fit the lessons we want to teach into two Barefoot MBA teaching sessions next week, two hours on Wednesday night and two hours on Thursday night. From the curriculum we’ve already developed and the new information we’ve learned here, we must determine what is most important for these villagers to know.
What knowledge makes a successful business stand out? Empirical studies fail to provide an answer and instead leave plenty of room on entire bookstore walls dedicated to key business secrets – which, amusingly, seem to change about every six months. We don’t propose to have any more of an answer than the authors of so many ephemeral best-sellers. Instead, we have focused on the differences between what the few successful entrepreneurs here do and what everyone else does. It’s a bit like looking through time, when life was simpler and these questions had clearer answers. What business practices are essential to bridging the gap between success and everyone else (not necessarily failure, but subsistence living that keeps many villagers living in poverty and debt)? What information will help these villagers see the first small steps to growing their business, rather than the large gap between where they are and where they want to be? What is the common practice that could use revision?
We found answers in our discussions with entrepreneurs over the past weeks. The differences come in subtle but noticeable lessons. The successful people break from common practice. They take profits from rice farming, use some to replant rice for next year and then do something different. They use the remaining profit to plant a new crop, raise a pig – or fish, or frogs, or fruit trees. They test their own products and try to improve them. They talk to customers to determine what they want and make products accordingly. They join together with other producers of similar goods to collectively bargain for lower transportation costs to get their goods to market. And, most remarkably, they have a very precise knowledge of the financial status of their businesses, both in records and in their heads.
Knowing this, we have narrowed our curriculum of 14 topics to 3 or 4 we think we can pilot next week:– Investing (business growth)
– Production (value-add services available to existing market products and materials) – Planning & Records (tracking investment and business growth)– Marketing (understanding customers, explaining a product to them)
We’ve changed the business examples in each lesson to correspond to best practices we’ve seen this week and changed the figures to correspond to local market prices. Our curriculum will be translated this weekend, and next week we head back to Lamplaimat to work with the PDA employees who know these villagers and will teach the curriculum. Together we’ll go through the lessons and think of ways to bring them to life for our students, through role playing, discussion questions or even the dreaded business school cold-call.